Is it appropriate to screen employees, consultants or volunteers using Google or Bing online searches, or searches on social media? It depends on so many things…
If that person is going to act in a capacity where they regularly represent the organization to the public, particularly through the press, or the person is going to interact with vulnerable populations – children, people with disabilities, women that have been the targets of domestic violence, people with dementia, etc. – yes, it’s completely legitimate to look them up online, to see what comes up. But you have to think clearly about what it is you are looking for. A person being politically active online, or expressing opinions online should not automatically exclude someone from working for you. Susan Ellis and I discuss this at length in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook,.
In 2012, this inquiry and response appeared in Dear Prudence, an advice column in Slate. It’s a good illustration of an online screening process going way, way too far:
I’m in human resources at an organization with a conservative culture. As part of vetting candidates, I Google them, check Facebook, etc., to see if there is anything of an embarrassing nature. One young woman candidate, age 23, has me stymied. She has a professional-quality website chronicling her many accomplishments and a perfectly innocent Twitter account. Her recommendations are lovely. But everything on the Web about her has happened since 2009, the year she graduated from college. No Facebook account, no Myspace. I find this weird. I have never known a person under 25 who wasn’t all over the Web in high school and college. I thought of asking her, but if she’s clever enough to sanitize a Web presence, wouldn’t she have a story ready, too? I don’t want make unfair assumptions or ask an inappropriate question, but I also don’t want to be the idiot who hired someone who was in a sex scandal and have my career go down in flames. Should I take a chance? Is there a perfectly logical explanation I have not thought of?
Here is the response from Prudence, which I think is brilliant:
How amazing that someone might get rejected for a job because the Internet is not full of her idiotic, juvenile activities. Think about how silly it sounds that you would find it reassuring if there were Facebook pictures of her at drunken frat parties or if you could read her deepest Myspace thoughts from high school. As hard as it may be to accept, some people just aren’t that interested in social media and their absence from it does not signify that they were part of an underage sex ring. In doing your due diligence you’ve discovered that as this young woman launched her career, she has a created a professional presence on the Web. She sounds exactly like the kind of person your conservative company would welcome. Don’t punish her because you can’t find evidence of something she has to hide.
Also, remember that some people may have two accounts on the same platform, one for their professional activities and one for, say, their Princess Leia cosplay activities. If you try to friend an employee or volunteer on Facebook, and are rejected, that could be because the person really wants to keep their personal life separate from their professional or public life, not because they are trying to hide anything.
Also, remember that there are many, many people with the same name. I’m stunned at how many people have my name too. I’ve never been to Albuquerque and was not in New Mexico in 1997. Yet, do a search on me with particular phrasing, and this comes up (not that rescuing sheep would preclude me from volunteering):
Okay, one more thing to remember: search engine results can be misleading. For instance, a Google search of my name back in 2013 generated this link, which makes it look like I’ve been arrested (I haven’t – EVER):
This newspaper published information about a training I was leading back in my home town in Kentucky, but the Google result also captured other information on the same page in that newspaper, like a story about a woman who was arrested on an alcohol-related charge. To the untrained eye, it looks like it’s me! But you would know that only if you clicked on the link. Remember this when you are researching a new employee, consultant or volunteer online!
There are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, interviewing and screening online volunteers and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering among volunteers and between volunteers and staff and clients in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Our advice is focused on working with online / remote volunteers, but it applies to working with any volunteers, including those who will do all of their service onsite, under the supervision of staff or another volunteer. Our advice is based on many years of working with online volunteers ourselves, consulting with people working with volunteers, and reading all we can, both in research and in the news, regarding working with volunteers and legal challenges around employee use of social media.